Madison Square Garden, NYC: The NHL playoffs are providing thrilling games on a nightly basis and some surprising teams are muscling their way into the final four. Meanwhile in Gotham, the New York Rangers continue to stockpile assets and position themselves to make a run at the big silver cup in the years to come. But how soon can the Rangers turn it around and become a real threat to hoist that mighty chalice?
The Rangers were wise enough to realize they weren’t going anywhere last season and got to selling assets. They did the same at the deadline this season and their efforts produced some nice young fruit. Did that sound weird? The unripe fruit has now begun to ripen and the Rangers are looking to pour the foundation of a perennial contender.
If old friend Mats Zuccarello and the Stars can win Game 7 in St. Louis tonight, the Rangers will have a whopping three first round picks including number two overall. With two big studs in the draft, the Rangers are sure to get either American star Jack Hughes or the Finnish winger who sounds like a cartoon character, Kaapo Kakko.
But both are top end prospects and expected to top players for their teams pretty quickly. Hopefully Jeff Gorton does better with his three first round picks than Dave “The Dart Thrower” Gettleman did with his first round turd.
Business in the Front
Unless something strange happens at the upcoming Worlds, Kappo is coming to New York. He’ll vault to the top of an impressive list of Rangers’ prospects. Vitali Kravtsov was a first round pick in 2018 who was just signed to an entry level deal. Kravtsov is only 19, born about a week before the turn of the millennium, but has top end skill. He made a big jump in the KHL last season and could make the big club as soon as next season.
Morgan Barron is a highly regarded center who had a big season for Cornell. He’s a pro-typical power forward who plays good defense and does well on the boards. He is likely to play one more year in college but is on a trajectory for Broadway.
The Rangers have high hopes for young Filip Chytil, who was inconsistent but certainly showed flashes this season. Lias Andersson had a disappointing year and was back and forth to Hartford, but the team likely still views him as third line center who can develop into a solid two way player and penalty killer.
Pavel Buchnevich blossomed into a twenty goal scorer in 2018-19 and has more room for growth. Brett Howden looks like a guy who can contribute as well.
Party in the Back
Many of the team’s top prospects play defense, but the path to the big club is blocked by several high paid veterans. The Rangers just added to the D stockpile by trading for Adam Fox, the highly accomplished college D-man with vision and skill who is nearly NHL ready. They also have K’Andre Miller, the six foot four smooth skating blue liner who took a big leap at Wisconsin this season. It would not be surprising if Miller and Fox becomes the team’s top pair at some point.
Libor Hajek came up last season for a cup and coffee and scored a goal before a shoulder injury knocked him out for the season. Yegor Rykov, Ryan Lindgren, and Nils Lundkvist are other highly regarded defensemen who have a chance to make an impact in the coming years.
Tony DeAngelo finally showed what the fuss was all about this season. Neal Pionk played well early, but his offense fell off and he made plenty of mistakes. Pionk always seemed to be on the ice when the gave up a big goal.
Time to Open the Checkbook?
With so much young blood in the pipeline, you might think the pendulum is swinging back and the time is right to pounce on a big name free agent like Artemi Panarin. But it might be a tad premature, as there is still dead wood to be lopped off.
Mark Staal had a decent year, but he’s sure not going to live up to the two more years at $5.7 per year he has on his contract. Kevin Shattenkirk has been a shell of his former self and also has two years left at $6.6 per season. And Brendan Smith had a scrappy season and even played some competent wing, but isn’t worth the two years at $4.3 he has left either.
Is Anyone Sticking Around?
Mika Zibanejad and Brady Skjei are the only other veterans who seem to fit into the team’s long term plans. Both DeAngelo and Pionk are restricted free agents (RFAs) and they’re likely to only keep one. Spoiler alert: It’ll be DeAngelo.
Chris Kreider, Vlad Namestinikov, Jimmy Vesey, and Jesper Fast are all unrestricted free agents (UFAs) after this season. Look for some or all of them to be shopped at the deadline or sooner.
A Royal Problem Between the Pipes
In goal, the team looks to be in fantastic shape. Alexandar Georgiev came on down the stretch and looked like he has the makings of a star. The Rangers also just brought over their top G prospect in Igor Shesterkin from Russia. Igor is coming off a fantastic 24-4 season with a miniscule 1.11 GAA, an outstanding .953 save percentage and an eye-popping ten shut outs. This guy has done all he can in the KHL and is ready for his NHL shot.
But there’s a problem. Team icon Henrik Lundqvist has two more years at his contract at $8.5 million per. Hank turned 37 in April and looked to be in pretty rapid decline at the end of last season. The King has shown no interest in waiving his no trad clause, but the Rangers should try to push him this year if a contender is interested.
Georgiev is a RFA after this season. Shesterkin is not going to be happy waiting around in Hartford and might even have an out in his contract to return to the KHL if he doesn’t make the team. So something has got to give.
If Hank is still unwilling to take a trade, and Igor comes along as advertised, the Rangers might have to trade Georgiev. I respect Henrik for wanting to play for one team his whole career and he deserves to finish his career with dignity as much as any athlete, but I’d sure hate to see the team have to part ways with one of their young netminders. This situation looks like trouble.
With Hank, Staal, Shattenkirk, and Smith set to come off the books in two years, the Rangers need to take care to not bring on any big contracts in the next two years. In the meantime, guys like Kakko (or Jack Hughes, fingers crossed), Kravtsov, Chytil, Andersson, Howden, Miller, Fox, and Hajek will get some quality NHL experience under their belts and will be growing under the tutelage of David Quinn. At that point they could look to bring in some difference making free agents and really try to make a push. But for now they should be patient.
Two more seasons of mediocrity seems like a long time, but that’s the way it’s set up for the Rangers. It’s hard to see it breaking right before then. Let’s not hang any banners yet, but the team is rebuilding the right way and the future looks promising. I hope Gettleman is taking notes.